Authord: Bidhan Parmar
As a business ethics professor, I continually field the question – from my students, friends, acquaintances, sometimes even strangers – “Can ethics really be taught to adults?” It’s certainly an age-old question dating back over 2500 years to Socrates and his fellow philosophers. The debate has continued over the years, weighing in at various points.
According to recent research funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health, the answer is “yes, ethics can be taught” but it depends on how exactly you teach it.
Recent research conducted by organisational psychologist Michael Mumford and his team at the University of Oklahoma confirms that most types of ethics training have little if any, effect on learning and future ethical behaviour. Typically, companies and many universities use training methods such as self-directed online viewing of ethical theory, compliance guidelines, legal rules, lectures, and small group discussions of scenarios that have an easily identifiable “right” answer.
In assessing the effectiveness of different kinds of ethics training, Mumford and his team have been able to pinpoint exactly what works best in helping people improve their ethical decision-making skills. They examined the impact of different teaching methods on various learning outcomes such as information retention, transfer of learning to different situations, and the ethicality of future decisions. Across the board, they found that ethics training works better when it is active, relevant to what people actually think, and provides a process and tools for understanding and making similar decisions in the future.
A good example is the case method, which plays a large role in successful ethics programmes. A significant body of research has identified discussion of complex cases to be a more effective technique than traditional lecture-based learning.
Cases that surface the complexity and ambiguity of ethical decision making promote critical thinking skills, deductive and analytical reasoning, and active decision making. To make improvements in decision making, participants have to grapple with framing the situation, selecting relevant information, formulating arguments, and assessing strengths and weaknesses of their choices.
The active and social engagement in a case discussion makes it more likely that knowledge is encoded more richly in the brain – meaning that knowledge is associated with more cues – and therefore is more likely to be recalled later. A case-based approach to ethics education was 4.5 times more effective than a compliance-focused approach.
It seems that trying to improve your decision making by watching a video is like trying to improve your tennis game only by watching Wimbledon or the US Open.
The second feature of ethics training that actually works and is a hallmark of the case method is what Mumford’s team calls elaboration – or getting participants to expand on why they believe something or might act a particular way. Getting at a participant’s underlying assumptions and mental models creates more effective learning because facilitators are tapping into what people actually believe and helping them to see the strengths and weaknesses of their current set of assumptions.
One proven way of increasing elaboration is generative questioning, or getting people to formulate relevant questions about a situation or a case; these questions prompt attention and active processing of material, which leads to stronger mental models and better recall. This is why in our ethics curriculum we focus on creating a decision-making framework – or a short list of questions designed to help participants elaborate the ethical issues in any situation.
Finally, by elaborating a participant’s thinking facilitators can help participants avoid common decision traps such as only paying attention to confirmatory information.
Additionally, ethics instruction is more effective when it helps participants better understand their own process of making decisions and how to improve it, rather than only focusing on the “right” choice. Teaching about processes for making ethical decisions gives participants a repeatable and generalised toolkit to apply to similar situations. Ethics instruction that includes discussion on strategies and pitfalls in decision making significantly improves learning outcomes and knowledge transfer for several reasons: First, tools like an ethics framework help participants seek and pay attention to relevant information so that they can imagine the future in richer detail, and can thus create more nuanced action strategies to address that future. Second, understanding the decision-making process also gives people strategies to apply in ethical decision-making that are more readily observable and assessable. For example, you can verify whether participants thought out the impact of their decisions on stakeholders or if they thought about the most likely weaknesses and counter-arguments to their choice. Finally, these process-based tools are more likely to generalise to other contexts and decisions and thus are more likely to improve participants’ ethical decisionmaking capacity beyond a course.
Such attributes focuses on improving a participant’s sense making capabilities. Sense making involves prompting people to ambiguous and ill-structured situations. These often ill-defined complications force people to think about the situation at hand using a variety of mental models. How people choose and then apply a particular mental model impacts subsequent information gathering, processing, and evaluation of appropriate courses of action. By making this process explicit and intentional, successful ethics education prompts people to better confront ambiguous situations by developing the critical thinking capacity to overcome situational pressures.
The catch is that this kind of case method instruction is not easy to implement. Doing it correctly and effectively requires trained facilitators with skills in Socratic Method and, unfortunately, these are usually in short supply. Good and effective training is necessary since organisational ethics violations can be extremely costly and problematic. The case method might not be simple or easy to institute but, as recent research has shown, it is the most effective way to “teach ethics.”
The writer is associate professor, business administration, Darden School of Business- University of Virginia.